James D. Watkins was headed for a swift vote of approval from the Senate panel considering his confirmation as the first career military man to head the Energy Department.

Watkins, a retired Navy admiral with broad experience in the service's nuclear program, drew strong praise from nearly every member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee during a three-hour hearing Wednesday.The committee is to vote on the nomination Wednesday. Several members told Watkins even before questioning him that they would vote for him.

Although lacking professional experience in civilian energy, Watkins showed a solid grasp of such issues as the future of hydroelectric power, prospects for using methanol to power cars, and deregulation of natural gas.

He said the Bush administration was devoted to "a future that is energy-independent, healthy and safe."

Watkins pledged to shake up the department's management of its nuclear weapons complex, a network of 17 major plants in 12 states that develop, produce and test nuclear arms for the Pentagon. Key parts of the complex have been shut down for safety and technical reasons, crippling the nation's weapons production and raising the specter of huge modernization and cleanup costs.

"It's a mess," Watkins told the panel.

He said that while the government would have to invest billions to upgrade the nuclear facilities, the biggest challenge was to instill a better attitude in Energy Department workers responsible for overseeing weapons production. The plants are operated under government contract by private companies.

"Within six months you'll see a whole new face on it," Watkins said in reference to the department's management of the weapons production complex.